Arts-based school reform: A whole school studies one painting

Arts-based school reform: A whole school studies one painting

Short, Georgianna

What happens when a whole school decides to study one painting? One elementary school decided to find out.

The idea resulted from a grant-based whole-school reform initiative that called for placing art at the core of the curriculum (Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge Grant). Fair Arts IMPACT Elementary, an alternative school in the inner city, always required study of visual arts, music, drama, and dance. However, content taught in each arts area was determined by the classroom teachers. Every month or so, the Arts Team and classroom teachers would meet. Classroom teachers would explain content to be covered in succeeding weeks. The Arts Team would then scramble to find art content that fit the content specified.

The new arts grant called for reversal of this practice. The arts would now be considered a core subject (equal in stature to language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies). Further, and more importantly, arts content would now determine the direction of classroom lessons. Responsibility for making connections between learning in the arts and learning in core subject areas would shift from the Art Team to classroom teachers.

However, implementation of an arts-based curriculum presented numerous initial difficulties even for this arts-based school. Fair’s Title One status presented the biggest challenge. Fair Avenue received the lowest reading scores on proficiency tests in the city the previous year. As a result, teachers schoolwide were already committed to a new intensive reading program. Meeting demanding expectations of the Title One reading program and requirements of the new Arts Grant would not be easy.

Decision-Making Tirne

A Leadership Team composed of 10 classroom teachers, four arts teachers, a school principal, and university mentors met weekly to resolve the two-grant dilemma. After an extensive 2-month discussion, the Leadership Team decided upon an integrated arts-reading curriculum.

Combining arts content with reading curricula is not without precedent. Visual and verbal communication share certain similarities. Studies indicate that when teachers make a conscious effort to link visual and verbal expression, students can attain in-depth understanding in both (Olson, 1997). Persons exemplifying both visual and verbal aptitude include visual artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Manet, who were also known for their writings, and writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, ee. cummings, and T.S. Eliot, who were also known as artists (Olson, 1997).

Also of importance are research findings that curricula that combine visual and verbal language are highly effective in teaching inner-city children

(Alejandro, 1997; Mesa, 1997). The analytic thinking needed to decipher works of art is similar to that required in analyzing written text (Alejandro, 1997). literary critics analyze character, plot, feelings, and relationships in writings while art critics look for use of formal qualities, composition, media, and meaning in artworks. In addition, both subjects are visually dependent.

Alejandro (1997) believes such parallels enrich learning rather than making one the “handmaiden” of the other (see Eisner, 1998), particularly when teaching inner- city populations.

At Fair Avenue, the integrated arts– reading curriculum would require study of the same artwork at every grade level. Team members agreed that if teachers had the same arts-based focus, they could work together more easily in development of integrated units. The Leadership Team considered various works of visual art, dramatic and musical plays, music scores and dance performances in its deliberations. Finally they selected Georges Seurat’s SundayAfternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-1886). Choice of a Eurocentric painting for a predominately African-American school seemed unusual. However, the Grande Jatte met three previously established criteria. First, almost all teachers were familiar with the image: reproductions of the paint ing appear on posters and items of popular culture, including coffee cups, placemats, and men’s ties. Second, a three-dimensional Topiary “Jatte” was located in a nearby park. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the pointillist technique characterizing Seurat’s painting style fit nicely with the reading theme, “Personal Voice,” planned for the first 5 weeks of the upcoming school year.

A Summer Workshop

The Leadership Team recognized that while most teachers were familiar with La Grande Jatte, few had in-depth knowledge of the artist or the painting. They asked university mentors to hold a summer workshop to enable teachers to deepen their understanding of the painting and facilitate connection-making across subject areas.

The summer workshop occurred prior to the opening of school in fall. Instruction included contextual information about the life and times of Georges Seurat, the history and development of the Jatte painting and explanation of the pointillist technique. Participants also compared Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jane with The Church Picnic (1998) by Faith Ringgold. Teachers were shown how each artist expressed his/her Personal Voice by working in a distinctive style, selecting particular subject matter, and choosing certain media.

They also learned how these choices reflected the social world of the artist.

A videotape of the Broadway play Sunday in the Park with George was shown and the nearby Topiary version of the Jatte visited. Instruction in basic painting techniques followed. Teachers then met by grade level to integrate what they had learned about La Grande Jatte and Church Picnic into their required course of study.

The First Day of School

When children arrived on the first day of school, they found an extra large reproduction of La Grande Jatte situated on an easel in the main hallway. Large reproductions of the painting were also found in every classroom. They were told that this painting would be the center of instruction for the first 5 weeks of school.

Classroom teachers used inquiry methods to introduce the painting to children. They asked questions such as “Who is in the park?” “What kind of clothes are they wearing?” “How do these people feel about one another?” “What do you think this painting is about?” After describing and interpreting the image, children were provided historical context and information about the artist. An assembly followed where slide images of topiary figures were presented, topiary construction explained, and similarities between topiary figures and those in Seurat’s painting illustrated.

The Arts Team then took children on a field trip to the Topiary Park. Children first participated in a scavenger hunt designed to reinforce connections between Topiary figures and those in La Grande Jatte. The remainder of the afternoon was filled with music, drama, and dance-related activities. The following day, classroom teachers integrated what students learned about La Grande Jane in the Topiary Park with content from core subjects.

Integrating Reading with La Grande Jane

The reading specialist integrated La Grande Jatte by giving the following scenario to students: “You are a news reporter for a local radio station. Your assignment is to go to Grande Jatte Island next Sunday and interview some of the people you find there. Which of the many people in the park would you choose to interview? What would you ask them? How would you report their answers on the radio to listeners?”

The class decided to interview five main figures in the painting: the reclining man with a pipe, the woman with child standing in the center, the seated girl with flowers, the man with a bugle, and the lady with the big bustle at the right front corner. Groups of students developed interview questions for each character. Series of questions asked the man with a pipe included “What type of work do you do?” Questions asked of the lady with a bustle began with “Why do you have a monkey as a pet?”

One child in each group volunteered to play the part of the character and another offered to play the part of the reporter. Period costumes and props were provided by parents and the reading specialist.

The class decided a “talkshow host” would be necessary to provide interview continuity. Commercial breaks would also be needed between interviews to be “like real.” But no one could think of what products to advertise. The reading teacher suggested that students examine the painting to find what people of Seurat’s time might be interested in buying. After scrutinizing a reproduction of the Jatte, the children decided to advertise pipes, umbrellas, hats, and candy (because everyone likes candy). Jatte-related commercials and a song meeting reading proficiencies were then composed. The song reflected the most obvious feature of Seurat’s “Personal Voice,” his painting style, and also met a proficiency related to rhyming schemes:

When all was ready, the announcer began: “Welcome to station F-A-I-R, right in the middle of the `hood.’ Today’s program, `Thinkers Table,’ is being brought to you by: Hats Incorporated, Umbrellas Unlimited, Peaceful Pipes and Tiger-In-Your-Candy, the new bar that makes you want to Purrr–rrrrrr-r (Tiger is the school mascot). Today we will be interviewing several people who were at Grand Jatte Island last Sunday. But before our interview begins, we will hear from the chorus in Room 6… (Pointillism Song)… Now a word from our sponsor… (Product Commercial). We are ready for our first interview.”

One person in the class served as “cue card holder” in case anyone forgot lines and a kindergarten teacher accompanied the singers on the piano. Every child in the class participated. Later students wrote a paragraph describing their favorite interview and stated why the interview impressed them.

Integrating the Arts with La Grande Jatte

The visual arts teacher used a variety of instructional strategies to engage student interest in La Grande Jaffe.

Objectives of the visual arts lessons included:

understanding the social climate of the time with respect to race/gender discrimination and prejudice

examining reasons why individuals create works of art

discovering that artworks have meaning

learning that artists have unique personal voices

realizing that art is a vehicle of culture: the history and culture of a community is reflected in its art

knowing that artists don’t always express themselves realistically.

The first lesson involved defining the “Personal Voice” of an artist. The visual arts teacher pointed out that in “regular” classrooms students studied the “art of language,” while in the art room they studied the “language of art”: line, shape, color, value, form, texture. She then explained that these elements of art become the parts of speech for the artist. Students then compared selfportraits painted by artists throughout time such as Leonardo daVinci,

Chuck Close, Henri Rousseau, Jacob Lawrence. They recognized differences in the way these artists used visual language to express their Personal Voice.

Afterward students compared Seurat’s La Grande Jatte to The Church Picnic by Faith Ringgold. The teacher called attention to similarities between verbal and visual language by discussing the narrative qualities found in Church Picnic (Turner, 1993) and those found

in La Grande Jatte. When the teacher finished reading, students were asked questions about the Quilt such as “What was the social climate of the time?”, “Was there race or gender discrimination?” and “Might there have been prejudice among those attending the picnic?” Students were then asked the same questions about La Grand Jatte. Among other things, they discovered that Ringgold’s quilt portrays only African Americans while Seurat’s paint ing depicts only Caucasians; that people in Ringgold’s quilt are clustered in family groups, while most persons in Seurat’s painting are isolated women and children. Students discussed what the artists might have been trying to convey by grouping figures in particular ways. Each child then selected a figure from the painting and wrote a narrative describing what he or she might say if given a voice. Primary children (grades K-2) dictated their stories to intermediate students (grades 4-5) who asked clarifying questions and provided grammatical assistance while recording them in longhand. To conclude the unit, children were asked to paint their own interpretation of SundayAfternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

The music teacher discussed music from the time period of Seurat. Two main selections, “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi and “Nuages” and “Fetes” by Debussy were used with every grade level. As they listened to Vivaldi, younger children discussed how the Island of La Grande Jatte would look in each of the seasons depicted by Vivaldi. When listening to Debussy, they were told that music also “paints a picture” and were asked to describe the pictures Debussy might have been thinking about when composing “Nuages” and “Fetes.” Older children learned about phrasing (a musical sentence expressing a complete thought similar to a verbal sentence and to compositional construction in painting). The music teacher also compared dynamics (loudness and softness) in music to verbal and visual expression.

The drama teacher took children on an imaginary airplane ride to Paris, France. Before leaving, students located Paris, their own city, and the Atlantic Ocean on a world map. Once in Paris, the class visited the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre Museum. They pretended to buy food at an open air market, eat lunch, and play soccer in the park. Children also sent a postcard to their classroom teacher describing what they had done that day and illustrated the description with drawings. The next morning (next class period) students imagined visiting the Island of La Grande Jane. They discussed why the artist chose this location for his painting, and then brought the characters to life through gesture and dialogue. They met Seurat’s “mother” (the drama teacher in a costume) and some were put “in role” as Seurat.

A variety of Jatte-related dance instruction was also offered. For instance, dance movement was related to Church Picnic by listing words that described the activities of figures in the quilt such as “playing, relaxing, hugging, napping, sweet potato pie, games, relationships, and courting.” These words then became the basis of dance movements recorded in Motif Nota 3. Older students studied slides of the Topiary Park’s construction and compared the process to that of choreography. Afterward, students choreographed their own dance, wrote down the procedure, stated the problems encountered and solved, and performed the finished piece.


Teachers at Fair Elementary exhibited enthusiasm for the integrated arts – reading unit One teacher stated: “Strangely enough, I think the Grande Jatte Unit worked. The reason it worked was because of the Topiary Garden.

We were able to involve them handson… They were able to relate it [the Topiary Garden] to what we had taught them [about the painting], which made it real…” Another teacher remarked:

“I also thought [it] was better because we focused on one work.” A third teacher added: “The Jatte… was a good focused unit. It was… attractive [to us because] the kids were so clear about what was going on”. The AfricanAmerican kindergarten teacher summarized her feelings this way:

The African-American community tends to focus on its own culture and achievements. However, the Seurat Unit developed an appreciation of other cultures in children as young as five. I have three children. When they were young, if I had known what I know now, I would have taken them to places like the museum, the library, and the Topiary Garden, but we never left the community. The principal was equally impressed.

One journal entry reads:

Every child and every adult knew what we were studying. We had a common bond that was evident throughout the building in every classroom in every subject… Grade level plans evolved into wonderful learning experiences integrated across content areas. Children wrote wonderful, descriptive character analysis; …wrote and performed dramatic sharings; explored life during the time of the painting. In effect, they became the painting…

Her final journal entry states: We know for a fact that children increased the amount of writing; energetically tackled math word problems with critical thinking skills… increased their ability and willingness to work cooperatively and collaboratively; explored cultural diversity through historical perspectives; eagerly shared school activities with parents, friends and relatives and most of all, they increased their ability to critically examine and appreciate a piece of art in many many ways.

At the end of school year, Fair scored significantly higher on the Proficiency Tests. Reading scores improved 138% while writing scores soared 370%. Fair students and teachers had reason to be proud.


Fair Elementary’s whole school study of La Grande Jatte closely resembles what experts call anchored instruction where language, principles, and methodologies associated with more than one discipline explore a central topic. The topic then becomes a “hub,” “organizing center,” or “anchor” (Barab & Landa, 1997, p. 52; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt [CTGV], 1997). Successful curricular hubs or anchors parallel “how the brain perceives and manipulates the environment – not to how a computer stores facts” (CTGV, 1997).

Interdisciplinary anchors also preserve the centrality of the domain that holds the project together (Barab & Landa, 1997). The integrating theme or anchor weaves several existing courses together using the same student population. The result is a creation of a community of learners.

Teachers continue to recall how much they learned about the Jatte, about visual art, about an artist’s “Personal Voice,” about the visual– verbal connection, and how study of the painting enabled integration of core subjects. Arts-anchored interdisciplinary curriculum planned for the 2000-2001 school year will be similar to that based upon La Grande, jatte. Units of study on all levels will retain strong connections to the ongoing reading grant and will meet benchmark requirements of core subjects just as before. However, the new curriculum will be one-year long and will be based upon the life-centered theme “The Courage to Dream: Building Blocks to the Future.”

The theme will come alive through whole school study of three artworks: Students will study Tar Beach (1990) by Faith Ringgold in fall, followed by focus on The Cabinetmaker (1957) by Jacob Lawrence during winter months, and culminate with The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles (1991) by Faith Ringgold in the spring. These three artworks are thought to parallel the three stages of planning one’s future: Initiation of a dream (or life goal), planning and working toward the dreamed goal, and realization of the goal.

Deliberately connecting artworks to a life-centered theme or issue is intended to avoid former problems students had individualizing connections to the reading theme of “Personal Voice” and to Seurat’s painting, La Grande Jatte (Krug and Cohen-Evron, 2000). By making more explicit connections between the works of art and children’s lives, Fair Avenue Elementary anticipates enhancing youngsters’ abilities to understand themselves and artworks at deeper levels and in doing so, emphasizing the importance of an arts-centered integrated curriculum, rather than the previous subject-centered curriculum to this arts-based elementary school.


Alejandro, A. (1997). Like happy dreams: Integrating visual arts, writing, and reading. In J. Flood, S.B. Heath, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Barab, S.A. & Landa, A. (1997). Designing effective interdisciplinary anchors. Educational Leadership, 54(6), 52-55.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV) (1997). The Jasper Project: Lessons in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Mahwah, NJ.: Erlbaum.

Eisner, E.W. (1998). Does experience in the arts boost academic achievement? Art Education, 51 (1), 7-15.

Krug, D.H. & Cohen-Evron, N. (2000). Curriculum integration positions and practices in art education. Studies in Art Education, 41 (3), 228-257.

Mesa, R. P. (1997). Putting it in perspective: Administrating art education for literacy. In J. Flood, S.B. Heath, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Turner, RM. (1993). Faith Ringgold. New York: Little, Brown & Co. Ltd.

Olson, J.L. (1997). Becoming a member of a professional language learning community. In J. Flood, S.B. Heath, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Georgianna Short is an Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.


Copyright National Art Education Association May 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved